Phantom Buttons

I discovered today that most of the buttons on pedestrian crossings in New York were disabled a number of years ago. Due to the costs, it was decided that the ineffectual buttons would remain.

Interestingly though despite the fact that the buttons did nothing at all, the evidence showed that they still had a positive effect. People continued to use them (presumably unaware that their functionality was purely historic) and, as a result, less people felt compelled to jaywalk than might otherwise be the case.

Now, living in the UK as I do, I clearly don’t understand this sin of ‘jaywalking’ that appears to be deeply embedded within the US pysche (do cars just drive more slowly and safely in the UK? Do we just have far fewer people in the cities?). But it seems as if less jaywalking is A Golf Thing.

It’s interesting that we as humans respond in such ways to the design of things. It’s the same as the‘close doors’ button in lifts and the London Underground train buttons (which never work).

It seems that presenting the illusion – if not the fact – of being in control is good for the pysche. You might be running late and get to a crossing. What would you prefer to do? Stand still and wait for the green man to just appear on the crossing? Or press a button a few times – and feel like you’re doing something?

It’s likely we’ll see more and more placebo items appear as time progresses and automation subtly encroaches further on our everyday lives. But I suspect we’ll generally not realise their purpose. After all, it’s hard to accept that you’re actually being controlled by faceless timing mechanisms – or algorithms that remain resolutely opaque and grow increasingly powerful over so many aspects of our lives. It’s painful to give up that personal autonomy – no matter how much safer, quicker or fulfilled our lives will be as a result of pushing these phantom buttons.